Today, approximately 275 laws from Hammurabi’s Code are known. Each law was written in two parts: A specific situation or case was outlined, then a corresponding decision was given. Below is a sample of the laws of Hammurabi’s Code. What do these laws say about the worldview of Babylonian society? How do they relate to our worldviews today?
The Code had a lengthy prologue. Part of it read that Hammurabi was summoned by the gods:
... to make justice to appear in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked that the strong might not oppress the weak.
Prologues have been part of laws since at least the Code of Ur-Nammu (2100 BCE). Today, we call them preambles. Plato said that the purpose of preambles was to “persuade citizens to obey important laws by speaking to their hearts and minds through both reason and poetry.”3
Would people be more accepting of laws they disagreed with if they better-understood the reasons why we have the law?
3. Roach, K. (2001). Preambles in Legislation. McGill Law Journal 47, 129 -159, p. 131.
The Code’s punishments are outrageously harsh:
One problem with absolute punishments is that every case is unique. For example, stealing a mint from your grandmother’s candy dish is not the same as stealing her retirement savings. Because each case is unique, most laws today spell out a range of punishments that judges can choose from.
Why is it important that judges have flexibility to determine appropriate punishments?
Not all people were treated equally under Hammurabi’s laws. For example, while “an eye for an eye” applied if a free man was the victim of an assault, slaves were dealt with differently:
In short, slaves were dealt with as property and not as equal human beings. Today the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that “Every individual is equal before and under the law.” Among other things, this means that there is one set of criminal laws for all Canadian society.
Why must the law protect everyone equally?
The age-old adage of retaliation “an eye for an eye” finds roots in two of Hammurabi’s laws dealing with assault:
While retribution has a role in achieving justice, some people believe that “an eye for an eye” can set off a dangerous cycle. For example, in his book Stride Toward Freedom American Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.
Is an eye for an eye a reasonable way to restore order after a wrong has been committed?
The Code regulated many wages:
Today, most industrialized countries have minimum wage laws. However, these laws have not stopped growing economic inequality. This has led some people to call for maximum wage laws. For example, a 2013 Swedish referendum asked voters if executive pay should be capped at 12 times what the lowest-paid worker at that company makes. Voters rejected the proposal.
To what extent should laws regulate wages in society?
The Code made builders responsible for their work:
Laws have continued to evolve to ensure construction standards. However, instead of punishments such as death, governments today create laws that prescribe minimum standards. It is believed these laws will ensure quality and help prevent tragedies.
Why is it necessary for governments to regulate such areas as construction?
Many translations of Hammurabi’s Code have appeared in many languages. Every translation has important differences. A look at translations of the Code’s first two laws reveals this:
Translation can even have racial implications. Early versions translated “salmat qaqqadim” as black-headed people. Recent translators have acknowledged that this is literally correct, but they believe “salmat qaqqadim” was meant as a figurative expression for all of humankind. More controversially, L.W. King’s 1915 translation claimed that Hammurabi was the “White” king. Other English versions did not make such a translation. This has led some people to discount King’s version altogether.
Words matter. When studying Hammurabi’s Code, it is important to consider what translation is being used. This edition of The PLEA uses Driver and Miles’ 1955 version, the most-cited translation of the Code.